On the 5th September 2017 I departed Le Puy-en-Velay with the hope of walking just over 750 Ks (or as close to that distance as I could), to St Jean Pied de Port for a little girl named Wilai.
Traditionally, this is the first part, known in France as "Le Chemin" of the Camino which ends in Santiago de Compostella Spain, a further 800 Ks on.
Back in the 15th? or 16th? Century the Bishop of Le Puy reputedly walked, (presumably with an entourage), from the Seat of his Diocese all the way to Santiago, built a church to commemorate his pilgrimage, declaring the "Way" of special penitential importance.
This "way" is just one of many, but among the most popular trails leading to Santiago and the extraordinary performance of the "Butofumerio", you know the one performed by eight men dressed in similar garb to what is suggested St James wore- as seen in the film The Way. It's part of the legend that has grown up around the devotion to St James, as is his role as the slayer of numerous Moors, always depicted on a rearing stallion with sword in hand and assorted heads scattered around on the ground. (He of course did neither, but had his head removed by order of Herod Agrippa in Jerusalem, long before the pilgrimages began and the Moors arrived on the Iberian Peninsula- such is the stuff of legend!) Back to the 80-k thurible that is swung through the transepts of the Cathedral at almost the horizontal, with the smoke of burning aromatic incense billowing forth and filling the Cathedral and nostrils of all the assembled. Initially it was used to suppress the rather pungent rancid smell of the unwashed pilgrims and performed as they gathered for Mass. Now it is performed after mass which encourages the modern pilgrim to stay, and to the accompaniment of rising, stirring music. A special ritual.
Once again, I went off track.
My purpose for writing today, my second full day here in St Jean resting up, is manifold.
Firstly, to express my deep and abiding gratitude to Jo Shears, without whom my pilgrimage would have been a totally blank blog, without photos. Against all odds, against my incompetence in the use of social media, and the constant difficulty with fading (and at times non-existent) signals and the time difference, Jo, (with patience Job would have been envious of), offered her gentle suggestions as to how a problem could be solved, when I was at the point of tossing the iPad and iPhone in the nearest and deepest river. Her skill at organising photos, videos, and writings, (often in disorganised and confused order) produced a very presentable and readable travel blog: a masterly achievement. Thanks Jo.
Secondly, thank you, gentle reader, for being a virtual companion on the way. Your comments, your prayers, your interest and support have been such a boost especially when unexpected challenges tested my resolve.
Thirdly, I must apologise for harping too much on the difficulties encountered, as though what I was doing was extraordinary. I have met and heard of many fellow pilgrims who make my pilgrimage look like a stroll through verdant pastures. Take for example the 85-year-old Grandmother who was accompanied by her donkey from Germany. At the 800 Ks point the sure-footed donkey, (not the grandmother) had a nasty fall into barbed wire and seriously cut himself. When the sharer of the story met the woman, she was waiting with her donkey for a truck to take her and her donkey back home. Then there was Rich and Pat. An American couple from Arizona. Rich introduced his wife as being 75, she pointedly corrected him that she was still only 74 and would be until the following week. Rich recounted some of his amazing story as we climbed a steady slope for over an hour - he, without breathing difficulties, me, puffing and huffing unable join in the dialogue. This is some of the story he shared:
His Father was one of 17 children born to a mid-western farming couple. He was one of seven. Rich joined the US army, did two tours in Vietnam, the second as a Captain in charge of 27 landing barges, which transported Agent Orange to the delta region used as we know as a defoliant with dire consequences for everything that lived there. Rich himself was wounded by a rocket, and received two Purple Hearts. His ailments: quadruple bi pass, other surgery, is suffering from some type of lymphoma cancer caused by the agent orange- he has been granted a "life time" TPI pension because of the agent orange.
Well what more can I say? These are just two of the many such stories. So, I am glad to have walked the way but no heroics.
Thirdly and this is related to the second point. You will recall I hoped at the beginning to walk the 750 Ks stated on some of the maps. The distance from Le Puy to St Jean. Well according to my Fitbit, I walked 719 and as you will also recall some of those Ks were Off- piste. Some of the days requiring an 8 or 9-hour walk became impossible, which meant using transport for a part of those days. So again, no heroics, just a very pedestrian pilgrim.
Fourthly, I think you should know that all the expenses for my pilgrimage were covered from a combination of my pension and from my family. So, all the donations so generously given will be used entirely to support the Walk for Wilai project. Receipts will be sent and a full accounting of how the funds will be used will be sent to each donor. The constitutions of our Foundation demand that we will always be accountable and transparent, and we will be.
Fifthly, in one of my blogs, I spoke about the experience of loneliness along the way and how it helped me a little to understand something of the loneliness and isolation of a little girl called Wilai. On further reflection I realised that it was impossible for me to come near to understanding not just her loneliness and isolation but desolation. As I said, whatever loneliness I experienced, was only temporary. Actually, it was solitude rather than loneliness and it was indeed a gift rather than a burden. The more I walked the more time I had to assess and reflect on my life's journey: its failures (very salutary); its small achievements; the people with whom I have lived with, worked with and served; and the gift of family - loving and exceedingly generous parents and sisters and their extended families of nieces and nephews, grand nieces and nephews.
So, what was it that kept nagging me?
It was the enormity of being a priest of a church in Australia and elsewhere that has justly suffered humiliation and ignominy because of the criminal scandal of child abuse and the cover ups that continued for many years, that further exacerbated the numbers and frequency of the abuse.
Doctors speak of "deferred pain" when someone experiences pain in one part of the body because of pain in another part. The word liminal helps me to understand the cause of that nagging and realisation, and feel the shame and pain.
Tomorrow I leave St Jean for La Neyliere a Marist house where I will be for at least three weeks to do a personal retreat. I hope to continue the blog, recalling those stories I said I would return to but also to expand further the last sharing.
So once again, please accept my thanks, and my appreciation for your prayers and friendship.